Osborne humiliated as UK loses AAA credit rating

The Chancellor chose to make Britain's AAA credit rating the ultimate test of economic stability. Tonight, he has been hoist with his own petard.

Back in February 2010, a few months before he entered the Treasury, George Osborne declared: "Our first benchmark is to cut the deficit more quickly to safeguard Britain’s credit rating. I know that we are taking a political gamble to set this up as a measure of success." A gamble it was and how it has backfired on the Chancellor. Tonight, Moody's became the first rating agency to strip the UK of its AAA credit rating (downgrading it to AA1), citing the "continuing weakness" in the UK's growth outlook and its "high and rising debt burden".

For Osborne, who chose to make our credit rating the ultimate metric of economic stability, it is a humiliating moment. Not my words, but his. During one of his rhetorical assaults against Labour in August 2009, he warned: "Britain faces the humiliating possibility of losing its international credit rating". Rarely before or after becoming Chancellor, did Osborne miss an opportunity to remind us just how important he thought the retention of our AAA rating was.  When the UK was first put on negative outlook by Standard & Poor's, he said:

It's now clear that Britain's economic reputation is on the line at the next general election, another reason for bringing the date forward and having that election now ... For the first time since these ratings began in 1978, the outlook for British debt has been downgraded from stable to negative.

After it was later moved off negative outlook, he declared:

Last April, the absence of a credible deficit plan meant our country's credit rating was on negative outlook and our market interest rates were higher than Italy's.

By Osborne's own logic, then, his deficit plan is no longer credible.

Tonight, the Chancellor has, unsurprisingly, described the decision as "a stark reminder of the debt problems facing our country – and the clearest possible warning to anyone who thinks we can run away from dealing with those problems". His cause is aided by the fact that the hawkish rating agencies want more austerity, not less. In its explanation of the decision, Moody's cited "reduced political commitment to fiscal consolidation". As he comes under attack from Labour, Osborne will retort, "but you want to borrow even more!" Ed Miliband and Ed Balls, who frequently shy away from making the explicit case for Keynesian stimulus, will need a clear and strong response.

The economic consequences of the downgrade are unlikely to be significant. France and the US, for instance, have seen no rise in their borrowing costs since losing their AAA ratings (in fact, yields on US and French bonds have fallen). All the evidence we have suggests that the market is prepared to lend to countries that can borrow in their own currencies (such as the UK) and that enjoy the benefits of an independent monetary policy, regardless of their credit ratings or their debt levels. But the politics of the downgrade are toxic for Osborne.

Still, you might ask, why should we listen to Moody's, the agency that gave AIG an AAA rating just a month before it collapsed? The answer is simple: we shouldn't. But this doesn't alter the fact that Osborne did. For political purposes, he used Britain's credit rating as a stick to beat Labour with. He can hardly complain if others now use this move against him. Tonight, the Chancellor has been hoist with his own petard.

Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne leaves Number 11 Downing Street on December 12, 2012 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty Images
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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.